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Esther Lindström Studies Reading Instruction Practices for Students with IDD in Self-Contained Settings

Lindström examines instructional practices for teaching reading to students with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Story by

Kelly Hochbein

Photography by

Illustration by Ben Jones

Until recently, the predominant method of teaching children with intellectual or developmental disabilities (IDD) to read was to teach them one word at a time: Students would focus on and memorize a single word before moving on to another word. However, that approach may limit students in the long run. Researchers over the past decade have discovered that students with IDD respond well to learning phonics and the foundational components of reading, much like students with reading disabilities and typically developing readers do, with some adaptations to reflect their specific needs.

Esther Lindström, assistant professor of special education, is interested in how educators can move those research findings to the classroom. Her doctoral dissertation, currently under review for publication, is an observation study of reading instruction for students with IDD in which she examined how teachers were spending their time “when they say they’re doing reading instruction.”


The goal of the project was to describe the content and quality of reading instruction provided by seven special education teachers to 17 students with IDD in self-contained kindergarten through third grade classrooms.

“If we know what it takes to teach reading well to this population, how much time are they allocating to foundational skills like phonics or fluency, as opposed to vocabulary and comprehension?” Lindström asked. “We don't know what the specific formula would be, and it's not necessarily the same for every child... But we would want to make sure that those foundational skills are being addressed rather than just a whole word approach or just reading comprehension, for example. We would want to make sure that phonics and phonemic awareness are being taught explicitly.”

In an effort to better meet the needs of students with IDD in a self-contained setting, Lindström adapted an observational tool originally intended for use in a large classroom with students who are typically developing or who have reading disabilities. She made video recordings of typical classroom instruction focused on phonics and word study, vocabulary and comprehension, and other areas. Then, she and her team coded 2,901 minutes of instruction for the nature of the instructional content, the quality of instruction and how engaged students were in that instruction. Overall, the team found that teachers were spending some time on foundational skills, but that more time and effort is needed to support students with IDD as they develop as readers. For example, because students with IDD may take longer to learn what sounds certain letters make, their teachers might spend more time on this and add more intensive supports so that they can apply it to unfamiliar words and contexts.

Lindström asked the teachers how they thought that they were spending their time in instruction. She found differences between the activities teachers reported doing and what the team actually observed. “What that highlighted for me was a mismatch as far as how the teachers understood fluency, for example, and what that would look like and how it was being enacted in their classrooms,” she says.

In addition, Lindström observed that the teachers were spending more time on behavior management and transitioning between instructional activities than on reading instruction, and more so than teachers who work with other populations of students.

“Children with intellectual disability tend to have more difficulties with task engagement, and they might be more likely to engage in escape-oriented behaviors. So, when schoolwork gets hard, then they might present with more challenging behaviors in order to stop the task,” she explains. “There were teachers who felt comfortable meeting the academic needs of the kids, but then the behavior was really challenging, or vice versa, that they felt comfortable addressing behavior but then they weren't trained in teaching academics. Part of that was about how we train our special ed teachers”—a system that varies by state and institution.

This work appears in the journal Research in Developmental Disabilities.

Lindström collaborates with colleagues with different focus areas, an approach she says helps uncover existing connections.

“I think what fascinates me we learn from reading disabilities and move that to ID [intellectual disabilities], and how we can take that information to really improve instructional practices. And in so doing, we can make school a more enjoyable place for children and a more enjoyable place for teachers,” she says.

Lindström’s research, including “Project RISE: Examining Teachers’ Reading Instruction, Supports, and Expertise for Students with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities,” in which she examines reading instruction for elementary school students with intellectual and developmental disabilities and how it relates to their reading growth, is supported by an Early Career Research Award from the Institute of Education Sciences’ (IES) National Center for Special Education Research.

Story by

Kelly Hochbein

Photography by

Illustration by Ben Jones

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